I have written in these pages before that the increasing salience of social media to civic life and political activism in Southeast Asia has led quite predictably to governments’ increasing attempts – many of them ham-handed – to manipulate and control them.
More evidence of this trend emerged this week, when Reuters published a report claiming that Twitter had suspended a Thai pro-royalist account linked to the palace.
The new agency’s analysis found that the pro-monarchy @jitarsa_school account was connected to thousands of others created en masse since September. These accounts collectively beamed out tens of thousands of tweets in a coordinated effort to amplify royalist messaging and drown out a rising protest movement that has lampooned and criticized the Thai monarchy.
The student-led protests, which have become a regular occurrence since July, are seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the drafting of a genuinely democratic constitution. They have also made unprecedented calls for reforms to shackle the power of King Vajiralongkorn. The protests have been driven by the savvy use of social media, particularly Twitter. It has also become an outlet for excoriating criticisms of the government and monarchy and gleeful mockery of King Vajiralongkorn.
Reuters found that the @jitarsa_school account was created in September and accrued more than 48,000 followers before its suspension. A Twitter spokesperson said that the account was suspended for violating the platform’s “rules on spam and platform manipulation.” More than 80 percent of the accounts that followed @jitarsa_school were created in recent weeks and engaged in the bot-like amplification of Thai-language royalist hashtags, such as #StopViolatingTheMonarchy, #ProtectTheMonarchy, and #MinionsLoveTheMonarchy, usually accompanied by pictures of the king and other royals.
Before it was deactivated, the profile of the @jitarsa_school account stated that it trained people for the Royal Volunteers program, which is run by the Royal Office. A Facebook page for the Royal Volunteers School, which posts pro-monarchy videos and news of the program, also identified the Twitter account as its own.
While the royalist account was suspended, it is an open question whether its wooden approach to dissemination would have found much purchase beyond royalist circles. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is a niche platform in Thailand, one that is overrepresented by a young users fluent in a meta-language of memes, veiled references, and circular in-jokes that has been the current protest movement’s stock-in-trade.
If this latest finding signals the Thai establishment’s increasing awareness of the need to harness social media to pro-royalist ends, it also illustrated the incompetent and tin-eared nature of its attempts.
The Reuters report came after Twitter announced in October that it had suspended 926 accounts based in Thailand, for partaking in coordinated – and similarly unsophisticated – information operations on behalf of the Thai military. “The accounts tended to rely on a few basic tactics, such as replying en masse with supportive messages to tweets from Army PR accounts and dogpiling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts,” stated the Stanford Internet Observatory, which conducted the investigation.